When ethicists have conflicts of interest

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)44-46
Number of pages3
JournalDissent
Issue numberFALL
StatePublished - Sep 2005

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
p ART OF THE difficulty is that questions of conflict of interest are increasingly de-cided by institutional conflict-of-interest committees, such as the one on which Epstein serves at the University of Chicago. Most institutions prefer to police their own behavior rather than submit to external regulators, and they also prefer to write their own ethical guidelines rather than have them imposed from the outside. But when institutional insiders are writing the guidelines, they are often tempted to write them in a way that serves the institu- tion. The presence of impartial outsiders on institutional committees is supposed to lend the committees a measure of credibility; yet an institution can easily choose outsiders whose judgments mirror those of the insiders. This problem is not limited to conflict-of-interest committees; any pharmaceutical company conducting ethically controversial research can cherry-pick bioethicists who are most likely to give them the opinions they want. Michael West, the biotech entrepreneur who set up ethics advisory boards at Geron and Advanced Cell Technologies, recognized this when, as Stephen Hall reports in Merchants of Immortality, he told Hall, "You're not getting whether something is right or wrong, because it all depends on who you pick." Such problems can be seen in the ongoing conflict-of-interest saga at the NIH. A year or so before the current, rigorous guidelines were announced in February, the NIH had responded to the scandal in a rather more modest way: it announced that it would appoint a special Blue Ribbon Panel on Conflict of Interest Policies to devise some recommendations. But the Blue Ribbon Panel itself included many members who either worked for private industry or who had industry ties. One of the co-chairs was the chairman and former CEO of Lockheed Martin; another panel member was the vice president of a for-profit health care company. Two members were connected to ethics organizations: the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank that accepts funding from the pharmaceutical industry, and the Ethics Resource Center, an organizational ethics center funded by a variety of private industries, including Merck.

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